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TOD Poised to Push Past the Recession

Posted on September 14, 2009 by Nicole Schlosser, Associate Editor - Also by this author

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LIvable Communities Act

Art Guzzetti, VP, policy, American Public Transportation Association (APTA), says that one of the first things the Obama Administration announced was their Livability Initiative, intending to connect transit, housing and place.

The initiative was jointly announced by three cabinet secretaries in the same hearing: Sec. Sean Donovan, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Sec. Ray LaHood, from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and Sec. Lisa Jackson, administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In early August, the S. 1619 Livable Communities Act 2009 bill was introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn). "We're really putting a lot of emphasis behind this bill," Guzzetti says.

S. 1619 would establish the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, which would create the Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities, and put into place a comprehensive planning grant program and a sustainability challenge grant program.

"The federal government believes it can...create communities that are more efficient. TOD communities are much lower in their greenhouse gas output," he adds. "There's receptivity to transit [now], and it's increasing every year. We have the ridership trends to show it."

 


SMART Planning

Due to creative financial planning and partnerships, Sonoma, Calif.-based Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is moving full-speed ahead on its Railroad Square project.

The square will be located in the historic center of Santa Rosa, where the train depot has been for more than 100 years. The former rail yard, once used for a now-defunct freight railroad, has created an opportunity. "It's a vacant site and has been for a long time, due to contamination problems. But it's also a very important piece of property because it's so central," says Chris Coursey, community outreach manager. The property has gone through a remediation process.

SMART began working on the project in 2005, reaching an agreement with the city of Santa Rosa. With input from the city, they chose the Pasadena, Calif.-based developer, Creative Housing Associates, and won an exclusive negotiating agreement with them. "We went through a couple of years of difficult negotiations during which the market was declining, around the end of 2006 [through] early 2008," says John Nemeth, planning manager.

The developer tried to maximize their return in the declining market, and stay within SMART's parameters, which included a large housing component of at least 125 units on a 5.3-acre site, on-street parking only if there were streets created internally, and lots of green building. They presented a design that everybody liked, but soon ran low on funds, and had trouble finding investors. Creative Housing ended up partnering with the developer next door, the John Stewart Co., in San Francisco, whose property they needed for an adjacent parking structure, and who SMART was negotiating with over a sliver of property on the boundary between the two sites.

The project was widely embraced but still had a financial gap. A third partner got involved, San Francisco-based Equity Community Builders (ECB), and put together a plan to rally several different public sources. One critical source was the CA Proposition 1C bond funds, which contributed $11.4 million. (Passed in 2004, it offered bond money for TOD projects, brown field cleanup, and affordable housing.) The city of Santa Rosa offered $3.5 million in federal stimulus funds. "With those combined, that's gone a pretty long way in making up the project gap, although not completely. Developers are still trying to pull together federal new market tax credits," says Nemeth. While nothing has been built yet, developers are considering infrastructure upgrades, including an internal street and some 100-year-old stormwater structure replacement. 

The project is divided into three separate blocks. The southern block will include retail on the ground floor, with offices above. The mid-block is slated to be a retail marketplace on the ground floor, focusing on food and wine grown in Sonoma County, and above, will have approximately three stories of affordable housing. The northern block will include 118 units of residential market rate condominiums.

"The first phase will be the two southern blocks and the mid-block so the affordable housing, office and the garage for retail and the parking structure will come first. The market-rate housing would wait for a few years, until the residential real estate market has recovered a little...the hope is to try to commence phase one within the next three to five years, before the phase two market rate residential comes online," says Nemeth.

The total project cost is $180 million.

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